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Collectors return to Asia’s biggest art fair despite cooling market

Picture Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and George W. Bush as 7-year-olds. Now set them on a playground.

What would they talk about? Would they take turns to slide? Would the world be in a better place?

It’s a thought-provoking exercise — one generated by Beijing-born artist Lí Wei’s eerie, hyperreal sculptures of six world leaders, on show this week at Art Basel in Hong Kong.

Chinese artist Lí Wei’s large-scale installation depicts world leaders as schoolchildren. - Noemi Cassanelli/CNN
Chinese artist Lí Wei’s large-scale installation depicts world leaders as schoolchildren. - Noemi Cassanelli/CNN
The sculptures imagine six world leaders, including George W. Bush and Angela Merkel, as 7-year-olds. - Noemi Cassanelli/CNN
The sculptures imagine six world leaders, including George W. Bush and Angela Merkel, as 7-year-olds. - Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

Asia’s largest art fair, which concludes Saturday, has returned to “pre-pandemic scale,” as organizers put it. More than 240 galleries from around the world were invited to participate, up more than a third from last year.

The accompanying uptick in visitors to Hong Kong, along with a slew of satellite exhibitions, public art displays and parties coinciding with the event, have provided a sense of normalcy to a city grappling with new economic and political realities.

Just days before Art Basel opened, the territory’s legislature passed a sweeping new national security law, aligning it more closely with mainland China and raising fresh concerns over Hong Kong’s future as a free and open international hub.

China and Hong Kong’s leaders say the new laws are needed to “plug loopholes” as part of their drive to “restore stability” following large-scale and occasionally violent pro-democracy protests in 2019. They argue their legislation is similar to other national security laws around the world.

But any potential censorship fears among local artists, however, seemed a distant concern at a commercial fair where many galleries are focused on selling imported art to well-heeled overseas collectors.

“A lot of people brought works that are easier to sell,” observed New York-based collector William Leung, an avid fairgoer who had returned to Art Basel Hong Kong for the first time since 2019.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now… and it’s an election year in the US. People are wary and carefully spending their money.”

A painting by US artist Ivy Haldeman (left) showing at New York gallery François Ghebaly's booth. - Noemi Cassanelli/CNN
A painting by US artist Ivy Haldeman (left) showing at New York gallery François Ghebaly's booth. - Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

Standing in front of a painting of sensual, anthropomorphic hot dogs by artist Ivy Haldeman, Los Angeles gallerist François Ghebaly said the fair seemed like it was back to normal, although the rate of transactions felt slower.

“It’s not just the region (Asia), it’s a general caution that is happening with the market,” he added. “Things are fine, things are moving, but at a slower pace.

“It’s not an exuberant frenzy that we could have seen prior to the pandemic, and even during, when the market was heating up with all this money pumped into the economy.”

There were, nonetheless, a handful of seven-figure sales during the fair’s opening days. Victoria Miro sold three works by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama for a combined $11 million. Mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth revealed that it had sold a mixed media work by American artist Mark Bradford to a private Asian collection for $3.5 million and a Philip Guston painting (to an undisclosed buyer) for $8.5 million, while a work by abstract expressionist painter Ed Clark was purchased by a foundation in mainland China for $1.1 million.

Organizers heralded this year's fair as a return to “pre-pandemic scale.” - Keith Tsuji/Getty Images
Organizers heralded this year's fair as a return to “pre-pandemic scale.” - Keith Tsuji/Getty Images

The biggest single sale disclosed so far is the $9 million paid for Willem de Kooning’s “Untitled III,” also at Hauser & Wirth. But comparisons to previous years point to a slowing market: Back in 2018, another untitled de Kooning masterpiece was sold by another gallery for $35 million within the first hour of the fair.

But having a booth isn’t just about selling.

In the fair’s “Discoveries” section, emerging Japanese artist Fuyuhiko Takata quietly stood to the side of his display watching visitors react to his video installation “Cut Suits.” In a nod to Yoko Ono’s 1965 performance of “Cut Piece” in New York, Takata filmed models dressed like Japanese salarymen gleefully cutting fabric off each other’s suits in a homoerotic play on male masculinity.

A child sits in front of Japanese artist Fuyuhiko Takata's video work "Cut Suits." - Louise Delmotte/AP
A child sits in front of Japanese artist Fuyuhiko Takata's video work "Cut Suits." - Louise Delmotte/AP

The artist said he was nervous but happy to appear at the fair for the first time. “At this moment, I’m not yet known on the international art scene but I’m getting there,” Takata said via a translator. “So, it’s very important to show my work here at Art Basel to (gauge) the response from foreign audiences and find opportunities with overseas art galleries and museums.”

Over at Galerie Lelong & Co., fairgoers circled an outsize sculpture of a woman’s face, by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, that appeared narrow from one angle but expanded as you walked around it. Plensa’s artworks, which are often found in public spaces, resonate with a wide variety of audiences, according to the gallery’s vice president, Mary Sabbatino. “There’s a huge response where people feel like his work is made for them,” she said.

The New York and Paris-based gallery, once a mainstay at Art Basel Hong Kong, is looking to re-establish its presence in the region after years away, Sabbatino added: “Success, for us, will be to reconnect with our clients, meet new people, reinforce existing relationships and build new ones.”

Many international galleries opted out of recent editions of the fair due to Hong Kong’s strict Covid-19 restrictions. The city only lifted mandatory quarantine for travelers in January 2023.

The city’s art scene changed dramatically in the intervening years.

Since an earlier, sweeping national security law was imposed by Beijing on the city in 2020, many politically engaged artists have either self-exiled abroad or stopped creating works that are overtly critical of China. As one local artist at the fair put it, they have “remained silent.”

“Artworks without a political message are welcome,” he added, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Hong Kong artist Mak2's installation in the fair's "Encounters" section. - Noemi Cassanelli/CNN
Hong Kong artist Mak2's installation in the fair's "Encounters" section. - Noemi Cassanelli/CNN
A visitor looks at Japanese artist Teppei Takeda's “Painting of Painting 046” at Maho Kubota gallery's booth. - Noemi Cassanelli/CNN
A visitor looks at Japanese artist Teppei Takeda's “Painting of Painting 046” at Maho Kubota gallery's booth. - Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

Opportunities for some Hong Kong artists, however, have grown. At the fair’s “Encounters” section, which is dedicated to large-scale works, a dystopian installation by local artist Mak2 features replica paintings of her works placed in a faux booth, flipped upside-down and made to look like they are decaying 200 years into the future.

“When I began as curator for ‘Encounters’ in 2015, I couldn’t get galleries to propose a Hong Kong artist,” said the section’s Australian curator, Alexie Glass-Kantor. “And last year I was able to open with Trevor Yeung and this year Mak2,” she said.

Gallery Exit, which represents mostly emerging or mid-career Hong Kong-based artists including rising star Stephen Wong, meanwhile showcased the works of over two dozen artists.  “Because people’s travels were restricted, there was quite a strong interest in local artists, because a lot of our clients are from Hong Kong,” said the gallery’s manager, Hilda Chan.

A colorful booth by Dvir Gallery, based in Paris, Tel Aviv and Brussels, which participated in the Hong Kong fair for the first time. - Noemi Cassanelli/CNN
A colorful booth by Dvir Gallery, based in Paris, Tel Aviv and Brussels, which participated in the Hong Kong fair for the first time. - Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

Hong Kong’s strategic importance to the global art market remains.

Due, in part, to its longstanding favorable tax and regulatory environment (Hong Kong offers tariff-free imports on art), the city still serves as the main Asian hub for Western galleries and auction houses, with both Sotheby’s and Christie’s moving to larger headquarters in the territory later this year. The city’s transport, handling and storage capacity also make it well placed to handle large volumes of art sales, while the opening of M+ in 2021, touted as Asia’s answer to London’s Tate Modern, has set a new standard for museums in the region.

So while Art Basel is a “very international platform,” Chan said, it still provides the chance to showcase homegrown talent.

“Each year, every March, there are a lot of people coming in. We can really show what we are working on to the outside world.”

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